Monday, 14 September 2009

19. The Work Starts

At this point the diary entries that I wrote during the autumn of 2007 came to a grinding halt. I now have to resort to memory to cover the 18 month period down here from December 2007 to September 2009.

As you might imagine, the pace of events became a lot more hectic as the date for the completion of the house purchase approached.

One subject that rapidly took centre stage was the finance. I’d had an endowment policy with the Prudential – a solidly Scottish company (or so I thought) – and the plan was to surrender it to part finance the house purchase. I quickly discovered (to my horror) that the ‘Pru’ used a call centre that, handily for us (!), was based in the Indian sub-continent.. aagghh! At this point, I started to feel more than slightly vulnerable as we had no communications in the gîte apart from a ‘pay as you go’ mobile phone.. There was a telephone kiosk in the village but for email, all we had were the facilities of an internet café in Bayonne 10kms away - during normal shop opening hours.

The subject of house finance rapidly turned into my worst nightmare when I requested the Pru in the sub-continent to send a large wodge of ‘folding’ to an account we’d opened with an offshore savings bank in the IOM. This they did but, crucially, they neglected to annotate the transfer with the details of our IOM account with the result that the IOM bank sat on it for a while before returning the money to India – an action which caused me many sleepless nights.

Bizarrely, they then left a message on my mobile to say that as they had no details of the target account they’d returned the funds to India - so they clearly knew whose funds they were. Why oh why didn't they call me before bouncing the funds back to India...? All of this was calculated to have me tearing my hair out.. I would lie awake at night in the wee small hours, literally going hot and cold, totally consumed by the fact that neither the IOM nor the Pru in India could tell me exactly where our much-needed house funds (aka our life savings!) were in the international electronic soup that lay between them.. and all the while this was going on, the non-negotiable house completion date was fast approaching and the pound/euro rate was accelerating downhill into unknown territory in an out of control plummet..

Now imagine, if you can, calling the IOM or India on a “pay as you go” mobile and being held in a queueing system waiting to locate someone responsible at either end who could do something about the foul-up.. We did manage to track down the funds in the end and have then safely re-directed to the IOM but it took some time before my stress levels returned to normal.

Between the initial signing of the Compromis de Vente and the Acte de Vente (completion) being signed 3 months later, the pound sterling started to nose-dive in value against the euro and we just managed to convert our house fund into euros at a reasonable rate before transferring it all across to our euro-account in France. With only days to run, our bank in St Jean de Luz then had to prepare a certified banker's cheque for the full amount for us to present on completion day. It really was a close-run thing and so it was just before Christmas 2007 that we convened at the Notaire’s office to go through the paperwork line by line before finally, miracle of miracles, the Notaire handed us a large bunch of keys..

Afterwards, we drove down to St Jean de Luz to celebrate the house purchase with lunch and a well-deserved glass of champagne overlooking the bay. We’d done it! P-h-e-w...

Time for a break with a spot of slide guitar.. and some stunning scenery from the now-legendary Route 66:

We’d already made contact with Peio, our friendly Basque kitchen fitter and he’d put together an excellent plan for our kitchen as well as putting us in touch with other local Basque ‘artisans’ to tackle jobs like the walls, painting, plastering, tiling, plumbing and the electrics. His Basque Mafia (as I called them) contacts extended over the border into the Spanish Basque country from where he had a Spanish Basque mate who would cut, supply and fit the green granite worktops for the kitchen at an extremely competitive price.

Within a day of completing the purchase, we had the house full of Basque artisans all working as I’ve never seen tradesmen work before. Bear in mind that this was the week before Christmas, it was pitch dark at both ends of the working day and, in line with standard French practice, all the light fittings had been removed by the family of the previous occupier (bare wires sticking out of the walls) and the fabric of the house was stone cold. My first job was to rig up some emergency lighting so that we could see what we were doing.

Meanwhile, Bayonne was quietly girding its loins ready for Christmas. We had Christmas in the gîte and despite it not being that comfortable, the sight of a large jangling bunch of keys kept our spirits up..

In the meantime, our team set to with a vengeance. Basque was the lingua franca and they only spoke French when Madame or I spoke to them. The painter (in his late 60s) was a real find.. he’d turn up at 7.30am, drop his tools off, switch the electric radiators on and then he’d nip up the avenue to the café on the corner for a quick caffeine fix before returning to start work at 7.45.. He would then work straight through until 5pm without stopping. He took Christmas Day off but at 7.45am sharp on Boxing Day (26th Dec) he was back at work. (Imagine this in the UK!) I’d often ask him if he would like a coffee or a hot chocolate but he’d always decline the offer. I went round the house removing all the numerous picture hooks, mirrors and wall fittings while he stripped the blessed pink wallpaper off. Most of the ceilings had quite extensive cracking of the plaster. He just got his head down and started in the living/dining room and appeared totally unfazed by the magnitude of the task before him – filling in cracks and fissures in the walls, sanding them smooth before tackling the cracks in each ceiling.

Meanwhile, the tiler-cum-plasterer (another Basque in his late 60s) was revealing himself to be another master craftsman.. He started work in the out-dated kitchen by ripping out all the old appliances, units and sinks and then he attacked wall tiling with what looked and sounded like a road mender’s pneumatic drill. The kitchen soon resembled a Beirut film set as the floor filled up with chunks of plaster, brickwork and the air was thick with dust. The pristine design for our new kitchen that Peio had created for us on his PC screen seemed a million miles away. The tiler/plasterer started peeling back the paper on the ceiling as it needed re-papering. However, it soon appeared that the paper was actually holding the ceiling up and so he recommended that he put a false ceiling in. After we’d okayed it, the next morning when we visited he’d singlehandedly put up the supporting framework for the false ceiling and he was already busy attaching the plaster board.

Meanwhile the painter was working like a dervish and had made a beautiful job of repairing the cracks in the living room ceiling.

When the electrician appeared, it turned out that he was Madame D’s son from the gîte! It’s a small world in the Pays Basque. Soon he’d channelled the walls for the additional wall lighting and extra power outlets that we wanted.

The kitchen fitter had brought all the kitchen components in from the garage and had started assembling everything. The painter had finished the kitchen and had repaired the cracks in the bathroom ceiling, the landing ceiling and the hall ceiling. He’d also put the undercoat on in the bathroom and was now filling in the thousand and one little holes and cracks in the hall, stairs and landing. What a worker - he was unstoppable.. He’d arrive at 7.30am in time for a quick coffee and then off he'd go to work..

As I write, it’s just going dark (it’s 5.50pm) and the wind is getting up – every now and again you hear a bang as a gust of wind rattles the shutters. It’s been very blowy all day – the weather forecast yesterday was for 70mph onshore winds. I’d’ve liked to have gone down to the sea front at Biarritz to see the big rollers coming in but that will have to keep for another day.

Soon, many walls had been replastered, floor tiles had been laid, new ceilings fitted and skimmed with plaster, light fittings installed, kitchen units built and gradually we could see that there was more work behind us than in front of us.

This was the first time we’d been involved in a total refurbishment of a house from top to bottom and it was very rewarding to watch it all gradually coming together exactly as we’d imagined it.

The bathroom was the last room to be attacked and it was blitzed! The noises coming from upstairs were indescribable as our tame tiler set to with a vengeance and his trusty four foot long pneumatic drill. Soon he’d chiselled off all the wall tiles and removed the bath, the wash hand basin, the toilet and the bidet.. After removing all the rubble he re-plastered the walls..

I was continually amazed at the pace of their progress when compared to British workmen. We’d spruced up the kitchen of our Herefordshire cottage just prior to selling it and our tiler there stopped every hour on the hour for a mug of tea and biscuits. Here, in Bayonne, they never took a break and just worked and worked and worked. After the bathroom had been repainted, the new shower unit went in, along with a new WC, wash hand basin and the heated towel rail and suddenly the bathroom was finished.

I was becoming a regular at the rubbish disposal centre which was fortunately only a 5 minute drive away and the house started to look empty as heaps of packing and cardboard boxes disappeared.

Gradually, there remained fewer and fewer jobs to do as we approached completion. We agreed a date by which it would all be finished and so at that point I called our removals company in Hereford and asked them to deliver all our things from out of storage on 1st February 2008 – which was only 5-6 weeks after we’d taken possession.

The house looked perfect and we were delighted with it. The new TV was delivered – followed by the man from Orange who hooked up our phone, TV and internet access. We had a large wardrobe delivered in kit form and soon that was assembled up in our bedroom. We also bought a wardrobe unit from a depôt vente in St Jean de Luz.

All that remained to do now was to start sweeping up the plaster dust that was everywhere but this little job took us weeks to get under control!

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